sehepunkte 7 (2007), Nr. 11

Christian Rohrer: Nationalsozialistische Macht in Ostpreußen

The former German province of East Prussia looms large in the history of the Third Reich. Its population was largely rural and Evangelical, an environment in which local village hierarchies - dominated especially by landowners and pastors - remained intact into the 20th century. Indeed, in the 1920s, East Prussia was the only part of Germany in which the German Nationalists (the DNVP) were the strongest political party, and it provided the base for a powerful regional component of the mass veteran's organization, the Stahlhelm, which conspired with local units of the Reichswehr to raise borderland militias and minuteman levies.

Although the National Socialists were originally a weak force in East Prussia, their ranks began to expand in 1929, and after 1930 they became the dominant force in local politics. Such anti-Weimar elements proliferated because the German Republic had failed East Prussia disastrously, or at least it was seen to have failed by most East Prussians. Weimar's political elites had not prevented an agricultural crisis that reduced eastern landowners and peasants to penury, and their sufferance of Versailles had sacrificed the province's borderlands (the Memelgebiet and the Soldaugebiet) and - worse yet - had cut off East Prussia from the bulk of Germany, a condition that intensified the effect of the region's inherent distance from markets. Equally problematic was Versailles' creation of another - less famous - "Polish corridor" between East Prussia and Russia, the latter of which had traditionally served as East Prussia's biggest foreign trading partner (although there was - admittedly - a palpable local fear of Russia exasperated by the Tsarist invasion during World War One and by the advent of the Bolsheviki). East Prussian symbols and values were built upon a view of the province as an eastern stronghold of Germandom - Robert Traba calls it a "bulwark syndrome" - and many East Prussians saw their province as a possible springboard for future German operations against its Slavic neighbors. Certainly, such a prospect suggested a special status for East Prussia in the eyes of many National Socialists.

Surprisingly, there have been relatively few scholarly studies of National Socialism in East Prussia, and most of the existing works are either short or they are truncated in the sense that they deal only with the period before the Nazi seizure of power. Works by Manfred Kittel, Klaus-Eberhard Murawski, Christian Tilitzki, Bohdan Kozi ełło-Poklewski and Dieter Hertz-Eichenrode all fall into this category. There are a number of factors behind the gaps in the historiography. Research on East Prussia is difficult because the province no longer exists: local archives are now in Polish or Russian hands, and with the apparent exception of the municipal archives in Olsztyn, they are bereft of German materials from the relevant period. East Prussian refugees have provided their own accounts of the Nazi past, but these are inevitably biased and often obfuscate the record rather than providing illumination. Also, historians usually produce area studies with the hope that the "typicality" of the region will endow the study with some greater importance, but this is manifestly not the case with East Prussia, where the atypical characteristics of the province - its agrarian base, its Eastern European location and its detachment from the Reich - comprised its most outstanding attributes.

In his excellent new study, Christian Rohrer provides the first detailed history of National Socialism in East Prussia, at least for the period up to World War Two, and he gets around the "typicality" problem by framing his book as a meditation on the nature of power - thus the title Nationalsozialistische Macht in Ostpreußen. Rohrer subscribes to the "structuralist" interpretation of National Socialism, which he updates by employing the theories of Niklas Luhmann and Heinrich Popitz. These theorists describe power as a metaphorical dialogue in which the capacity to get things done rests upon traditional authority, charisma or sanctions (the latter both positive in nature, such as patronage and the sharing of information, and - even more importantly - negative, such as threats, expulsion from the party and violence). In such a view, the wielding of power results more from neutralizing the will of its subjects than in making sure the exact purpose of its executor is fulfilled, and in this ambiguity much power is retained by subordinate elements in the chain of command. This type of approach means that Rohrer's book deals almost exclusively with the political dimension of East Prussian life, although its focus on local power relations and details also resembles the Alltagsgeschichte.

Rohrer's theoretical platform provides the basis for chapters that are chronological case studies based on well-defined subjects and periods. These topics include the impact of the 1934 "Blood Purge" in East Prussia, the downfall of Deputy Gauleiter Georg Heidrich, the importance of the economically significant "Erich-Koch-Stiftung," and the recovery of the Memelgebiet, but the core of the volume is devoted to the much-overlooked "Oberpräsident Crisis" of 1935, which Rohrer depicts as an example of the limits of power exercised by East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch. The "Oberpräsident Crisis" was the original subject of Rohrer's graduate work at the University of Freiburg, and his presentation of the importance and impact of this event is the most compelling part of the book.

Previous accounts of the NS-Zeit in East Prussia had portrayed Koch as an all-powerful local tyrant. Rohrer calls this approach the "Machtfülle Thesis," and it provides the primary target of his analysis. Koch was a World War One veteran and a Rhinelander who Hitler had sent eastward in 1928 as part of an attempt to break up a nest of National Socialist "leftists" in the Ruhr, although a lack of East Prussian roots did not prevent Koch from quickly assuming a dominant position in the local Nazi Gauleitung. Koch presided over a massive expansion in the size and influence of the East Prussian NSDAP, and even though Rohrer claims that most of this process owed to factors apart from Koch's leadership, the new Gauleiter certainly took credit for the successes. Koch soon found, however, that he had powerful enemies. His corruption and abuse of power was the epitome of Nazi "Bonzentum," and in 1934 the left-wing of the NSDAP - Koch's original home - was shaken by the suppression of the "Röhm Conspiracy." In the fall of 1935, Koch's local enemies in the state administration and the SS (particularly Paul Wolff and Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski) managed to line-up senior leadership figures in their on-going battle against Koch, especially Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring. On 26 November, Göring, acting in his capacity as Prussian minister-president, fired Koch from his job as East Prussian Oberpräsident (governor), a state post that Koch had added to his party title in June 1933. For a few weeks, Koch teetered on the brink of political annihilation, and among senior figures in Berlin, only Rudolf Hess rallied to his side. A month later, Hitler, who always had a soft spot for fighters of the Kampfzeit, whatever the degree of their dishonesty or administrative ineptitude, unexpectedly reinstated Koch in his state post. Rohrer reads this episode as a symptom of Koch's weakness and the limits of his power, although even he admits that Hitler's eventual rescue of Koch, the ultimate form of legitimization in the Führerstaat, wound up strengthening the Gauleiter in the long run.

Overall, Rohrer's book is a considerable achievement. He overcomes the scarcity of local archival materials in old East Prussia - now northeastern Poland and the Kaliningrad enclave of Russia - by scouring collections in the Bundesarchiv and the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz in order to find correspondence that was preserved in the central party files in Munich and Berlin. His chapter/case studies provide detailed accounts of the inner workings of the East Prussian NSDAP, and despite his occasional theoretical musings, which emphasize power as a system of abstract relationships rather than a product of individual personalities, his character sketches of Koch and other leadership figures are actuality quite fascinating. Nationalsozialistische Macht in Ostpreußen should certainly be regarded as essential reading for anyone interested in the general structure and operations of the Nazi Party. One hopes that Rohrer will someday extend the story to cover the period of the Second World War, when the final consequences of East Prussian Naziism - namely, the Soviet destruction of the province and the mass exodus or liquidation of its inhabitants - eventually came home to roost.

Rezension über:

Christian Rohrer: Nationalsozialistische Macht in Ostpreußen (= Colloquia Baltica; Bd. 7/8), München: Martin Meidenbauer 2006, 672 S., ISBN 978-3-89975-054-6, EUR 49,90

Rezension von:
Perry Biddiscombe
The University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Perry Biddiscombe: Rezension von: Christian Rohrer: Nationalsozialistische Macht in Ostpreußen, München: Martin Meidenbauer 2006, in: sehepunkte 7 (2007), Nr. 11 [15.11.2007], URL:

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